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So You Want to Disperse a Large Islamist Sit-In

CAIRO -- Egypt's new rulers have a problem: Tens of thousands of supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsy are camped out in two large sit-ins across Cairo. The new government doesn't want them there -- in fact, it has been so insistent on this point that it authorized the police to take "all the necessary measures" to clear the demonstrations. Yesterday, security officials said they would besiege the sit-ins within 24 hours.

While that deadline appears to have been postponed, the fact remains that dispersing the pro-Morsy crowds is no simple task. A police assault on one of the sit-ins last month killed at least 72 people, without succeeding in breaking up the demonstration. A new bout of violence threatens to provoke international condemnation of the new government, while also weakening its domestic legitimacy.

Sid Heal made his career in resolving problems just like this one. As a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, he was a platoon commander during the 1992 L.A. riots, and then the principal advisor to the U.S. Marine Corps on non-lethal options for Operation United Shield in Somalia. And his experience has taught him that controlling a crowd depends not only on the tactics used, but also on having a "clearly defined, feasible end state" in mind.

The Egyptian police force is largely unchanged from Hosni Mubarak's reign, and has received a great deal of justified criticism for using disproportionate violence against demonstrators. But if Egyptian officials believe they can convince Morsy supporters to abandon their cause by breaking up the sit-ins, Heal told FP, they are asking for something that no police force could accomplish.

"When you disperse [protesters], that doesn't mean that they go away. It just means that they go to a different place," he said. "What is it you are trying to accomplish by dispersing this crowd? In many cases, if it's peace, I can tell you right now that's a futile effort."

There are some signs that Egypt's security forces are attempting to approach the demonstrations as both a political and security challenge. The Interior Ministry recently held a meeting with human rights activists, where they invited the activists to observe the dispersal of the sit-ins. Ahmad Samih, the head of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, was one of those present at the meeting: "They told me you have been witnessing the elections, why would you not witness the break up of the sit-in," he said.

Samih said that the Interior Ministry estimated that there would be a minimum of 3,000 casualties from both sides if the security forces moved to violently break up the sit-ins through force. "They are expecting a very violent resistance," he said. "They told me, 'This is not Tahrir Square.'"

According to Heal, the goal is to separate the violent protesters from those who are less dedicated to the cause. Crowd-control experts argue that large crowds are made up of smaller "companion clusters" -- typically composed of friends or family members -- that each have different levels of commitment. The aim for security forces is to tailor their response to each cluster: They should not respond to the armed youth at the front lines, for example, in the same way that they respond to the women and children in the rear.

"Indiscriminately using a non-lethal weapon against people who just happen to be there but don't happen to be involved takes them from being mildly interested to fully committed instantaneously," Heal said. "Tear gas is one of the most common, because it is indiscriminate by nature."

Heal is a staunch advocate of advanced non-lethal weapons systems, particularly the Active Denial System, a U.S. military-designed heat ray intended to be used for crowd control. But such technology remains beyond the reach of both American and Egyptian police, which still rely on tools that Heal describes as "primitive" -- rubber bullets, tear gas, and tasers.

In the absence of better technology, Heal recommends more subtle ways to bring about a protest's collapse. "The infrastructure for the sit-ins cannot support a crowd the size you're talking about. And as a result of that, they tend to self-implode," Heal said. "For instance, there's no sanitary facilities, and men and women have very strong social norms at urinating or defecating in public.... The other thing is people are comfort-seeking creatures -- thirst and hunger are other natural dispersal agents that could work in their favor."

Whether that strategy would work in Egypt remains unclear. The sit-ins appear to be getting larger and more permanent with time, thus increasing the chances of a violent confrontation with security forces. For Heal, the name of the game is to prevent a winner-take-all conflict between the two sides.

"If I had a strategy, it would be to provide hope. As long as there is hope, nobody is willing to go to the extreme," he said. "To the degree that I have removed hope, or that I have chosen the application of force arbitrarily ... I have then elevated the chance that violence will be used to resist me."

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The 5 Nastiest Things the White House Has Said About Snowden

If there were any doubts as to how President Obama feels about Edward Snowden, he laid them all to rest in a Friday news conference, dismissing the NSA whistleblower as no patriot.

At times, the White House has seemed content to take a back seat in efforts to discredit Snowden, but taken together, the collected statements of Obama and his lieutenants indicate that the administration is no longer happy to watch from the sidelines.

Here is a thematic guide to the Obama administration's war of words in the Snowden saga.

No patriot

With a cutting remark -- "No, I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot" -- Obama weighed in on a debate that has roiled Washington: Can Snowden's decision to blow the whistle be squared with his decision to seek refuge in Russia?

For a president steeped in the language and history of the civil rights movement, which made extensive use of civil disobedience and whose leaders frequently broke the law and faced stiff jail sentences, Obama's sense of annoyance at Snowden's decision to leave the country was perhaps not surprising. "If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then like every American citizen he can come here, appear before a court with a lawyer, and make his case," Obama said. That generation of activists often found succor at the federal courts, and Obama's statement serves as an open invitation to Snowden to prove his point. The president here seems to be asking Snowden, If you have such a strong case to make that the Constitution has been violated, why not stay and vindicate yourself before the courts? To do otherwise, Obama contends, would simply be unpatriotic.  

"A 29-year-old hacker"

Prior to Friday, Obama was eager to downplay the entire Snowden saga. "I get why it's a fascinating story," he said during a trip to Senegal in June. "I'm sure there will be a made-for-TV movie somewhere down the line." The implication? Snowden doesn't rise to the level of a real geopolitical concern, and, no, Obama was not going to be exercising real political muscle to extradite him. "No, I am not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," he told reporters. That he would describe Snowden as a "29-year-old hacker" spoke for itself. This was a man, the president felt, who neither deserved his attention nor merited praise.

"Sideways" reporting

In his Friday press conference, Obama described the revelations surrounding the NSA's activities as "sometimes coming out sideways," a not so subtle dig at the accuracy of the reports. Obama's low profile on the issue has kept him from hitting back at the media outlets reporting the Snowden revelations, but on Friday he made clear that he wasn't happy with their reports. "What we have seen is information come out in dribs and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways," he said. "Once the information is out, the administration comes in, tries to correct the record, but by that time it's too late or we've moved on. And a general impression has I think taken hold not only among the American public but also around the world that somehow we are out there willy-nilly just sucking in information on everybody and doing what we please with it. Now, that is not the case."

Does the president have a point here? Sure, reports have at times not been crystal clear, but that is the nature of journalism, and if it weren't for the Snowden disclosures, we would never be having a debate about the proper scope of the NSA's powers. That's a price the president has to pay.

Neither human rights activist nor dissident

With Snowden holed up for weeks in the Moscow airport, the world has been transfixed by the question of whether the whistleblower would be granted asylum. That's a debate the Obama administration finds entirely tiresome. "Mr. Snowden is not a human rights activist or a dissident," White House spokesman Jay Carney argued at a July press briefing. "He is accused of leaking classified information, has been charged with three felony counts, and should be returned to the United States, where he will be accorded full due process."

Killer

So if Snowden is neither a patriot, a human rights activist, nor a dissident -- labels that he would probably all ascribe to himself -- what is he, according to the Obama administration? In Secretary of State John Kerry's blunt formulation, he might just be a killer. "People may die as a consequence of what this man did," he said in June.

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